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Two years after being hospitalized with COVID-19, survivors of the virus are still not back to the same level of health as those who never got it, according to a new study.
And half of those patients are still showing at least one symptom related to the virus, suggesting that prolonged COVID could end up affecting patients even more than expected.
The research, published last week in the scientific journal The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, follows 1,192 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 at Jin Yin-tan Hospital in Wuhan, China, between the beginning of January 2020 and the end of May 2020.
Because the research focuses on participants infected early in the pandemic, it represents some of the longest data we have on the lasting effects of COVID-19, shedding more light on how this pandemic could leave large swaths of the population. with persistent problems. during years.
“Our results indicate that for a certain proportion of hospitalized COVID-19 survivors, although they may have cleared the initial infection, it takes more than two years to fully recover from COVID-19,” said Bin Cao, Vice President of China. Japan. Friendship Hospital and lead author of the study, in a news release.
“Ongoing follow-up of COVID-19 survivors, particularly those with prolonged COVID symptoms, is critical to understanding the longer course of the disease, as is further exploration of the benefits of rehabilitation programs for recovery. There is a clear need to provide ongoing support to a significant proportion of people who have had COVID-19 and to understand how vaccines, emerging treatments, and variants affect long-term health outcomes.
This is not the first time data from this cohort has been published: the researchers published patient results in 2021, which looked at their health after six months and one year.
All results were compared to a control group that never contracted COVID-19 and whose age, gender, and comorbidity had been matched to the study patient cohort. The median age of the 1,192 patients was 57 years, with slightly fewer women at 46%.
To assess patients’ health during follow-ups, most of which were in-person, the researchers included a physical exam, a six-minute walk test, and laboratory tests, as well as surveys of symptoms, quality of life, mental health and other aspects of their lives in the aftermath of their recovery from COVID-19 and discharge from the hospital.
In general, the health of those who survive COVID-19 improves over time, the data shows. The percentage of patients who reported experiencing anxiety or depression decreased from 23% at six months to 12% at two years.
While 14% of participants had difficulty walking on the six-minute test at the six-month follow-up, that number dropped to 8% after two years.
After two years, 89% of COVID-19 survivors who had a job before the pandemic had returned to that original job.
And in terms of prolonged COVID, about 68% of patients were struggling with at least one persistent symptom of COVID-19 after six months, compared to 55% two years after contracting the virus.
…BUT COVID-19 HAS A PERMANENT EFFECT FOR MANY
The results still indicate that the long COVID is affecting large numbers of people for longer than originally expected.
Of the persistent symptoms patients described, the most common were fatigue or muscle weakness, with 31% reporting experiencing one or both. On top of that, although the patients improved over time, they still reported poorer overall mental and physical health than the general population.
“COVID-19 survivors still had more frequent symptoms and more problems with pain or discomfort, as well as anxiety or depression, at two years than controls,” the study said.
Just under a third of the participants also reported difficulty sleeping two years after contracting COVID-19, compared to just 14% of the general population represented by the control group.
COVID-19 survivors reported pain or discomfort at a rate four times higher than the control group and were more than twice as likely to report anxiety or depression.
And those with prolonged COVID were expected to use health care more frequently, even two years after contracting the virus. About 26% of those who still had at least one virus-related symptom reported a recent visit to an outpatient clinic, compared to 11% of participants without prolonged COVID.
“To our knowledge, this is the longest longitudinal cohort study of people who survived hospitalization with COVID-19,” the study states. “Prolonged COVID symptoms at two years were associated with lower quality of life, lower exercise capacity, abnormal mental health, and increased use of health care after discharge.”
Many studies have recently been published in an attempt to quantify the impact of prolonged COVID on patients’ bodies and minds. A study published in early May found that the cognitive impact of prolonged COVID on people tested six months after their acute illness was equivalent to aging 20 years.
The researchers of this new study say more research will be needed to understand how to combat this.
“The negative effect on quality of life, exercise capacity, and health care utilization underscores the importance of studying the pathogenesis of prolonged COVID and promoting the exploration of targeted therapies to control or mitigate the disease,” the study says. .
There are several limitations to the study, such as the fact that all patients came from a single hospital. Some who were originally part of the cohort did not return for the one-year and second-year follow-up, and it is not clear whether their presence would have confirmed the long percentages of COVID or whether they dropped out because they did not have it. symptoms to report.
Since the study examines those who contracted COVID-19 early in the pandemic, its findings may not apply to those who contracted later variants of the virus, highlighting the importance of tracking and studying throughout COVID in more patients. around the world.
“COVID-19 survivors had not returned to the same state of health as the general population two years after acute infection, so continued follow-up is needed to characterize the prolonged natural history of prolonged COVID; we plan to conduct annual follow-ups in this cohort,” the authors wrote in the study.
“The value of rehabilitation programs in mitigating the effects of prolonged COVID and speeding recovery requires further exploration.”